Category Archive: A Mathematician’s Lament

Bellevue Literary Press: 2009.

How to train your chimpanzee

The main problem with school mathematics is that there are no problems. Oh, I know what passes for problems in math classes, these insipid “exercises.” “Here is a type of problem. Here is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exer­cises 1−35 odd for homework.” What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee.

But a problem, a genuine honest-to-goodness natural human question—that’s another thing. How long is the diagonal of a cube? Do prime numbers keep going on forever? Is infinity a number? How many ways can I symmetrically tile a surface? The history of mathematics is the history of mankind’s engagement with questions like these, not the mindless regurgitation of formulas and algorithms (together with contrived exercises designed to make use of them).

A good problem is something you don’t know how to solve. That’s what makes it a good puzzle, and a good oppor­tunity. A good problem does not just sit there in isolation, but serves as a springboard to other interesting questions. A triangle takes up half its box. What about a pyramid inside its three-dimensional box? Can we handle this problem in a similar way?

I can understand the idea of training students to master certain techniques—I do that too. But not as an end in itself. Technique in mathematics, as in any art, should be learned in context. The great problems, their history, the creative process—that is the proper setting. Give your students a good problem, let them struggle and get frustrated. See what they come up with. Wait until they are dying for an idea, then give them some technique. But not too much. [?]

The art of explanation

By concentrating on what, and leaving out why, mathematics is reduced to an empty shell. The art is not in the “truth” but in the explanation, the argument. It is the argument itself which gives the truth its context, and determines what is really being said and meant. Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity—to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs—you deny them mathe­matics itself. So no, I’m not complaining about the presence of facts and formulas in our mathematics classes, I’m com­plaining about the lack of mathematics in our mathematics classes. [?]